Which Meals Are Fast, Cheap, Green and Nutritious?

Credit: Sifu Renka/Flickr

It may be hard to believe, but the quickest, cheapest, greenest and best-for-you meals are the ones you make yourself from fresh, whole ingredients. Americans have been hammered with messages for 50 years that cooking is a time-consuming drag, but according to a 2006 UCLA study, families save little or no cooking time when they build their meals around frozen entrees and prepared foods like jarred pasta sauce. And they save little money on these so-called “cheap calories,” as New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle likes to call heavily processed quick meals, snacks and drinks.

 According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you can eat five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables a day for less than one dollar. There might be a little work involved to get them ready to eat, but not a lot: a simple water rinse (please, no soap!) for an apple or a pear, some peeling and chopping in the case of carrots, and just a few minutes of cooking for virtually all vegetables (except potatoes). Heat-and-eat apple pie will certainly take longer, cost more and be laden with heaps of cheap—and unnecessary—calories.

And let’s not forget the toll that convenience foods take on the environment, a high price that we have yet to pay. The meat in our frozen dinners comes from concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs) that contaminate waterways with animal waste (and may contribute to E. coli outbreaks in leafy greens from farms downriver). To grow the soy, corn, wheat and rice that make up most processed foods, agribusinesses spray pesticides that leach into waterways, where they harm fish and wildlife. Meanwhile, the poor practices of megafarms result in soil disappearing (either blowing away as dust or running off into waterways) 10 times more quickly than it is replenished. If we were charged to treat the waste, rebuild the soil and restore damaged ecosystems, wouldn't we be more inclined to favor fresh, whole foods from small farms that use cover crops to retain topsoil, convert manure into compost and rely on pesticide-free controls?

Amanda Hesser, in her New York Times column, has written that “cooking is to gardening what parenting is to childbirth,” gently nudging the First Lady to expand her message about healthy eating to include cooking. We all could use such a sensible role model. Research by the NPD Group shows that Americans ate takeout meals an average of 125 times in 2008, up from 72 in 1983.

When you work outside the home, takeout can feel like your only option, not just for lunch but after a long, busy day. I credit the recession more than anything else, but budget tightening has helped my husband and me change our eating habits for the better. We eat at home more, preparing simple meals from scratch and paying closer attention to what we eat and where and how it was grown. Another way we save is by making a bigger dinner salad than we need each evening and eating the leftovers for lunch the next day. With healthy takeout costing up to $10, this has really helped us to bring our food budget down. Also, we’ve taken to making soup more often. They are incredibly easy, a great way to get lots of vegetables in a meal and utterly delicious. Here is one of our favorite soup recipes, which can be made with an assortment of seasonal vegetables. Do make enough for leftovers; soups are better the next day—and the day after that.

If you are thinking, “But I’ve got these hungry kids to feed. Getting them to eat right is nearly impossible,” consider these tips from the Lunch Lady. Anne Cooper is so sure that the fastest, cheapest and most delicious food for you and your family is the kind made from scratch using fresh, raw ingredients, she’s working to make sure it’s the food kids get when they are at school.

Still not sure you have the time or can afford to give up convenience foods? Check out threedollardinner.com, created by Jerry Kolber. His $9 e-book is filled with shopping lists, pantry-stocking wisdom and dozens of recipes for making delicious, healthy meals (often with organic ingredients), in little time (20 minutes for most) and for less money ($3 a person on average), whether you are cooking for one, two, four or more. Just try the Three Dollar Dinner Burritos and then decide. They are fast, cheap, healthy, green and truly delicious.

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